I’m “hung up on” what’s true

This unfortunate opinion piece was published in today’s New York Times, and given that it made me feel so sad and so nauseated at the same time, I figured it deserved a blogged response. Author Eric Weiner asks, “Americans: Undecided About God?” It would have been more accurate to say, “Eric Weiner: Reluctant to admit to atheism?”

For a nation of talkers and self-confessors, we are terrible when it comes to talking about God. The discourse has been co-opted by the True Believers, on one hand, and Angry Atheists on the other. What about the rest of us?

The rest of us, it turns out, constitute the nation’s fastest-growing religious demographic. We are the Nones, the roughly 12 percent of people who say they have no religious affiliation at all. The percentage is even higher among young people; at least a quarter are Nones.

If we atheists can be characterized as typically “Angry” about anything, it’s that people keep mischaracterizing us with unfair generalizations and stereotypes. It’s often assumed that we’re militant fundamentalists just because we dare to express any disagreement with religious dogma. And we get this garbage from “Nones” like Mr. Weiner, too, who you might think would be able to sympathize!

Unfortunately for Weiner’s argument, the “Nones” actually include atheists — a fact which he admits later and then promptly ignores. Since I am a-theistic (without a belief in a god or gods), I do not have a religious affiliation. He just wants to create a category for himself to be in that doesn’t include people like me, since we make religious Americans nervous. I guess the category, as he envisions it, is for people who aren’t able to believe in a god but really, really want to:

Nones are the undecided of the religious world. We drift spiritually and dabble in everything from Sufism to Kabbalah to, yes, Catholicism and Judaism…. We are more religiously polarized than ever. In my secular, urban and urbane world, God is rarely spoken of, except in mocking, derisive tones. It is acceptable to cite the latest academic study on, say, happiness or, even better, whip out a brain scan, but God? He is for suckers, and Republicans.

I used to be that way, too, until a health scare and the onset of middle age created a crisis of faith, and I ventured to the other side. I quickly discovered that I didn’t fit there, either. I am not a True Believer. I am a rationalist. I believe the Enlightenment was a very good thing, and don’t wish to return to an age of raw superstition.

We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.

If you “have a dog in this hunt,” Mr. Weiner, you might not be as rational as you assume yourself to be. I am an atheist because I haven’t seen evidence or logical argumentation that justifies belief in a god. If new evidence or solid logic presents itself, I have no problem with changing my mind. That’s what being a rationalist means. Approaching religion by actively pursuing a certain outcome is really the opposite of the Enlightenment-style, scientific mindset you claim to have.

But it turns out that truth doesn’t actually matter to him!

Nones don’t get hung up on whether a religion is “true” or not, and instead subscribe to William James’s maxim that “truth is what works.” If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people — more loving, less angry — then it is necessarily good, and by extension “true.” (We believe that G. K. Chesterton got it right when he said: “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”)

Are you kidding me? Are. You. Kidding. Me. If an idea being pleasant actually made it “by extension ‘true,’” you wouldn’t have to put “true” in scare quotes. How many times do we have to explain this? It would be good if nobody in the world was starving. Guess what? Still true that there are starving people. It would be good if there were no wars, no violence. Guess what? Wishing doesn’t make it so. I’m certain that I would be on the whole “more loving, less angry” if it were true that I already had my PhD and could put graduate school behind me. But guess what? I still have to finish that dissertation before it becomes a reality.

When Weiner refers to people who are “hung up on whether a religion is ‘true’” he’s made it sound like a bad thing. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong — in fact, everything right — with believing things only when they are most likely to correspond with the real world. Doing otherwise is known as being delusional.

We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.

Eric Weiner, you don’t want a new religion, you want to have your cake and eat it too. Religions are systems of supernatural beliefs. If they encouraged doubt and experimentation to form the basis of beliefs, they wouldn’t be religions, they’d be science. And if you want to be able to talk about an undefined, unverifiable, unlikely being and not be ridiculed for it … well, let’s just say the scientific community is not the place for you.

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12 Comments

  1. Per Sander

     /  December 11, 2011 at 6:46 am

    Hi, stumbled upon your blog after having read that awful piece from Eric Weiner. I hope he reads your reply. Very well written. I’ll check in on your blog again. It’s always reassuring to be reminded of how the battle for sanity in the US isn’t quite lost yet, although, for a Swede living in Germany, the US seems second only to Iran when it comes to religious dogmatism controlling politics. Your feeling the need to write anonymously says it all. Good luck,
    Per

  2. Thank you, Per. Comments like yours really make this worthwhile. I hope to see you around in the future!

  3. Aristarchus

     /  December 11, 2011 at 10:15 am

    This thing he proposes at the end… how is it different from Unitarian-Universalism or Reform Judaism?

    @Per: Give the US a little more credit. We definitely have a bunch of religious crazies, and probably more than Europe, but the difference is not that extreme. Lots of people go to Lourdes in France to be healed magically… and I would bet most of them are European.

    And for all the stupid quotes from politicians and attempts to change it, we still have separation of church and state. Religious schools don’t get government support. Blasphemy isn’t illegal. There are a lot of ways that things are better here than in most of Europe.

  4. Retired Prodigy Bill

     /  December 11, 2011 at 10:45 am

    In the film Excalibur, Merlin is pressed by Arthur to name the single most important quality of knighthood, and Merlin eventually angrily replies, “Truth. That’s it. Yes. It must be truth, above all. When a man lies, he murders some part of the world. You should know that.”

    Truth (the best congruence between our words and actual reality) is the basis for correct decision making. Truth is a shield against being taken advantage of, it is a weapon against unjust discrimination and oppression, truth is a necessary component for the scientific method and all the life saving and enhancing products of that method.

    I was a bit disappointed in Sam Harris’s essay on “Lies,” but I agree with his position: we need more truth in our dealings with each other. Lies, bullshit or, as is more common I think, attempting to say that everyone’s perception should be equally privileged, is both dangerous and leads to very bad things. And I think that latter is what Weiner wants to enshrine, but doing so won’t help his “Nones” one bit.

  5. Eric Weiner, you don’t want a new religion, you want to have your cake and eat it too.

    Fantastic! You hit the nail right on the head with that one. What Weiner really wants, I think, is to have a religion he can believe in without feeling embarrassed, even though he knows better than to accept silly supernatural stories. I don’t think he’s going to find what he wants. :)

  6. @Bill – I’ve been stuck musing on that Excalibur quote for the last couple hours, and I just figured out where I’d heard it before: Metallica’s “To Live Is To Die.” You can get pretty lost and distracted on Wikipedia if you try to look up where those lyrics come from, but it seems that at least the first two lines were written by Paul Gerhardt in the seventeenth century. … This bit of trivia was brought to you by the letter I, for Internet. :-P

  7. Ubi Dubium

     /  December 12, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    I’m also trying to figure out how this “new way of being religious” differs from UU. (Not that I’m convinced UU is a religion, and I’ve been teaching RE at one for two years now.)

    If he actually is unaware of UU, then he doesn’t sound much like the “seeker” he claims to be, or at least has not done very much of the “seeking” he espouses. And if he is aware of it, he probably should have mentioned it in his essay, since it seems to fit exactly what he described.

    I’m not impressed with Weiner, the wanna-be theist. He’s lumping the channel-surfers on the “TV of Religion” with those of us who have decided to turn it off permanently.

  8. “Eric Weiner, you don’t want a new religion, you want to have your cake and eat it too.”

    I had the exact same thought when I read this NYT piece — and I’m a Christian. Perhaps one of the things (some) religionists and (some) secularists can agree on (gently), is that, eventually, committment is almost always preferable to endless conjecture and “seeking.” At some point, the only way forward is to pick a direction and start walking. In my experience, the people who reap the truest fruits of faith are those who committ to a particular religious tradition and grow within it; those who take the “spritual buffet” appoach never get much past their own needs and desires. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear some secularists say the same thing about atheism — that the fruits of this path only come to the committed, even though the mainstream press often unfairly dismisses them as “angry atheists.”

  9. Did you see Tom Rees’ article review at Epiphenom that shows an empirical difference between “No Religion” folks and “Atheists”. They got less well-being.

  10. Jojo the hun

     /  December 23, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    I don’t see that he’s atheistic. He says he’s not. In fact he says most of his group believes in God or a higher power. One might say he believes there is a baby, and bathwater, and that he is trying to isolate the one from the other.

    By the way: what word would you use to describe someone who doesn’t believe there is a god, simply because they don’t see that there is evidence to support that claim, as opposed to someone who actively believes there is no god, with some reason? How do you differentiate between these two outlooks?

  11. Jojo,

    I’d describe your first group, those who simply lack belief, as atheist or non-theist. I think the best word I’ve heard for someone who actively believes that there is no god is “anti-theist” Although that work tends to bring with it an impression of activism that is not automatically a part of that belief.

  12. FWIW, while he does say that many people in the “Nones” group believe in a “higher power” of some sort, he also says, “We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day.” And he says he is a rationalist, not superstitious.

    I mean, even I believe that their are forces in the universe stronger than my own will. (See: gauge bosons.) That doesn’t mean I’m a theist. That doesn’t mean I “have a dog in this hunt,” either.

    If I say to you, “Do you believe in any gods?” and you say, “No,” I consider you an atheist. If I ask, “Are you absolutely certain that there are no gods?” and you still say “No,” I don’t think that voids the atheist label in the least.

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